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Rising Stars: Meet Sarah Wheeler

Today we’d like to introduce you to Sarah Wheeler.

Hi Sarah, can you start by introducing yourself? We’d love to learn more about how you got to where you are today?
I grew up deep in the woods in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, where storytelling is a way of life. My father used to tell me stories on the long, winding car rides to and from clogging lessons, and my mother used to read to me (and my seven siblings) by the light of an oil lamp at night. So a deep love and appreciation for stories has been part of me since almost the very beginning.

Over the years, this love of hearing stories grew into a love of sharing stories which grew into a love of performing. I studied theatre in college at Wake Forest, then acted in Atlanta for a couple of years before eventually finding myself—rather suddenly and unexpectedly— at a conservatory in L.A. And there, my love of performing and way of telling stories continued to evolve into something else.

On the first night of class of the second year of conservatory, we were told to prepare a monologue as a character we would never be cast as. Because I am typically cast as “the nice girl” I chose a monologue from a play called ‘Danny and the Deep Blue Sea.’ The monologue I chose to share that night was given by the title character, Danny, a deeply disturbed and violent individual; the scene was of him recounting an incident where he’d bludgeoned someone nearly to death.

After I’d finished my monologue in front of the whole class, my new teacher, who was sitting in a seat on the front row, continued staring at me for a long time without saying anything. And when he finally spoke, he asked, “What are you so mad about?” Feeling weirdly exposed and a little unsettled, I tried to make light of the question, “Me, Sarah? Or me the character?” He leveled his gaze and very matter-of-factly said, “You.”

No one had ever asked me that before. In fact, I realized later, I had never asked myself the question before. It hadn’t occurred to me, until that moment, that it was a question that needed asking. And yet, when asked, the answer had, without hesitation, come bursting out of my mouth. It was almost as if the answer had been standing on the other side the door, just waiting for someone to call it forward, and when they finally did, it came running.

And then there it was. Out in the open. Hanging in the air, glistening like the dust in the stage lights. The very short, simple, ugly truth.

Until that moment, I’d never even really considered I might be angry. Not really. I knew I was sad, very sad. Deeply hurt. Frustrated. Annoyed. Confused. But not mad. The “nice girl” isn’t supposed to get mad.

Most people think that acting is about putting a character on and playing pretend, but it’s not. Acting is about telling the truth. It’s about revealing the full humanity of a character; going into their interior world and bringing whatever we find there out into the light for everyone else to see. To truly become a character, you have to allow the circumstances of that person’s life to become your reality. Their feelings, their thoughts, their emotions. The one thing you cannot do as an actor is “fake it.” You cannot be truthful on stage about something you are not able to be truthful about in your own life.

So, when this teacher of mine asked me why I was so mad, there were three revelations: First was the realization that I was, in fact, mad. Second was that I had concealed my anger so long and so well I’d even managed to keep it hidden from myself. I had a blockage. And third, if that was true, there were probably a lot of other things about myself that I was missing, as well.

So there I was, face to face with my newly revealed anger and a decision had to be made. (Because anytime you brush up against the truth, whether intentionally or not, there are only two options.) Bury the thing, pretend like it never happened. Or dig into it to find what else is there. Either way, you can’t unknow what you know.

One of my favorite writers, Cheryl Strayed, says that to move forward when you’re feeling stuck you have to “[find] a channel for your love and another for your rage.” The stage had always been the channel for my love. So I decided it was time to pick up a pen and put it to paper. First came rage, and then came poetry.

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
Sometimes when I close my eyes and try to visualize what the path has been, I get a picture of those GPS maps. You know when you are driving and you lose signal or take a wrong turn and the satellite can’t quite gauge where you are accurately? The little car icon just sort of meanders in the dark gray area off the side of the road, while the GPS keeps saying, “Recalculating… Recalculating… Recalculating..” It’s been sort of like that. More of a “are we on-the-road or off-the-road?” type situation.

Our biggest superpower as artists is that we are highly sensitive and empathic beings by nature. We move through the world feelingly. Heart open, nerves exposed. Taking everything in. This is what makes the work we create relatable and meaningful and important. This is also the thing that has the potential to lead us to some unfortunate situations if we don’t navigate with the utmost care.

A common struggle for a lot of artists is that it can be very difficult to support yourself solely as an artist, especially when first starting out. So usually, some other form of supplementary employment is required. I’ve always known that a traditional 9-5 would not be a work situation that would serve me creatively, so for years I avoided it by working different jobs that would allow me to keep my schedule open for creative work/endeavors. After years of barely breaking even each month, there was a month when I ended up with negative $7 in my account. The scraping of the bottom of the barrel was taking its toll. I was barely making rent, falling behind on my student loans, unable to split the check evenly when I went out with friends, and ultimately stressing so much over money I was wasting energy that I wanted to be directing towards my work (which was the whole point). So I decided it was time to do something different. Maybe, I convinced myself, I could be someone who does a “normal” job. So, in addition to the part-time nanny gig I already had going, I took on a second job.

That job, while a huge opportunity and blessing financially, ended up being too much for my system to handle. It was a high-stress, on-call 24/7 type of situation. And it didn’t take long at all for my body to start telling me that that situation was not working. But I ignored my body. And I tried to convince myself if I could just keep going, it would get better. I would get better at it. I could make it work. I just had to try harder. But things just kept getting worse. I stopped sleeping at night. I started getting migraines 2-3 times a week. I was so mentally and emotionally depleted that I didn’t even want to see my friends anymore. My nerves were so fried I couldn’t drink a cup of coffee or go to an audition without getting heart palpitations. Once I was even offered an incredible role that I had to turn it down because I couldn’t feasibly add another thing to my plate. My brain was so scattered, I once drove through a red light coming off a ramp onto the 1 freeway in Santa Monica and just barely avoided a head-on collision. By literal inches. Another time a woman on an elevator asked me my name and I couldn’t remember my name. I didn’t recognize myself. And eventually, I became sick. Physically sick. And that’s when I knew I had no choice but to walk away. That was at the end of 2019.

When I decided to leave, I made the decision to not only leave that job but to step away from L.A. entirely for a while. I knew that what I needed, more than anything, was just some time alone with myself, to think and write and be. So I put all my stuff in storage and got in my car and drove across the country to a farm in Tennessee. Many people advised me against leaving. Questioned my decision. What about acting? What about your book? What if you’re still unhappy there? I had no intention of running away and never coming back. The only thing I knew at that point was that I had to take care of myself. So I went. All the while, the little car icon on the map veering further and further off the road into the dark gray area (read: Recalculating.. Recalculating.. Recalculating..).

If there’s only one thing I have learned and want people to know, it is simply how important it is to listen to and trust your own inner knowing. Nobody knows our needs better than we do. Nobody knew the kind of rest I needed better than I did. Trusting myself and giving myself the space and time and permission to just be for a little while without worrying about what would happen next in life was the kindest thing I’ve ever done for myself. My instincts told me that going to the farm was exactly the thing that I needed to do to be able to come home to myself. And, again, my instincts were right.

To be able to continue to move in the world as feelingly and openheartedly as I want to, and to be able to show up in the world as the artist I want to be, I now know that I have to be fiercely protective of my own well-being; that means my physical and mental health as well as my time and energy and creativity. It means setting boundaries, tuning out other people’s voices, and not second-guessing what I already know to be true. This, I’m convinced, is how to build a creative life that is healthy and aligned and fulfilling and sustainable. Maybe the only way.

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
I am an actor and a writer. Spoken word is my sweet spot, it is the place I feel most aligned because it is the intersection of where my love of storytelling/writing meets all of my training as an actor.

Another thing I do, which is the thing I am most known for—and I think the reason you’re interviewing me— I create blackout poetry.

Blackout poetry (also known as erasure poetry or found poetry) is the art of making poetry out of a pre-existing text (i.e., pages from books, magazine articles, newspaper clippings) through a process of eliminating and crossing out words. The words that are not crossed out remain and reveal a new message, usually one that has nothing to do with the text it was pulled from. It’s sort of like reaching into a pool of murky water and pulling out a fish. The fish being a poem, naturally.

I first started making blackout poetry in 2018. At the time a member of my family was very sick and I had decided I wanted to create a care package for that person and fill it with things that would be life-giving to them. So I went to the Grove one day and started going through all the shops and placing my hands on items, picking them up, holding them in my palms as if I was weighing or measuring them in some way (because I was). Every time I picked something up, I asked myself, “how much life will this thing give?” After many hours of weighing many things and coming up with very little, I ended up in Barnes and Noble in the poetry section, running my hands over the stacks of books. Finally, I came across a book that I felt compelled to open. Inside, I saw something I hadn’t seen before: a blackout poem. I don’t remember who the book was by or what the poem said, I just remember thinking that the subject matter wasn’t quite right, but the idea was perfect.

So I went home that same afternoon, pulled a stack of old books from my shelf, and started ripping out pages and marking out words. What I immediately discovered about the process was that it was sort of like mining for gold. Sifting through a lot of rubble until you find a thought so bright and clear it shines. Poetry. I ended up sending that person a box filled with small gifts and about forty poems. And then I kept making more poems. And more poems. And more poems.

Creating this work is not just having a poem at the end, it’s about the process. I come to the page without any preconceived notion of what I want to say or create. I come to the page with a blank mind and curiosity and I wait for the page to inform me. Very much like with acting, the goal of this work is to bring what is underneath to the surface. It’s not about ‘What am I trying to say?’ It’s about ‘What is it this page trying to say to me? What am I possibly not seeing here (about the world, about myself)?’ What this process does is pull background thoughts or feelings forward and connect them to a word, and then another word and then another word until there is a complete idea. Sometimes even a narrative. More often than not, my understanding of that thing –and of myself– is altered or broadened in some way. The practice itself is as healing as the poems.

Going back to that incident I mentioned above with the really intense job situation, making these poems throughout that experience is really the thing that got me through it. This daily practice helped center me even on the hardest days and also gave me a lot of insight into my emotional landscape at the time. (I made a lot of poems about birds in flight during that season.)

I’m incredibly proud of and endlessly grateful for the small online community I’ve found and built around these poems. It’s not a huge following, by any means, but if I’m being honest, I sort of prefer like this. This way, I don’t feel the pressure to show up on a schedule or create in a way that doesn’t feel authentic. I’m just sharing with people the things I am uncovering as I uncover them. I make a thing and then I release it, which can sometimes still be very raw. But then someone out there receives it, and what a gift.

As for the thing that sets my work apart? It sparkles!

What do you like and dislike about the city?
What I love (and miss most) about L.A. is that it is crawling with creatives and there are so many incredible places specifically designated for artists (shoutout to DPL—my favorite place in all of L.A.). Artists of every kind come from all over to find community and foster their creativity. Because of this, art is everywhere. Creative spaces are everywhere. Theatre, music, dance, poetry, film, comedy, street art, etc. etc. It’s everywhere. Art is the lifeblood of the city.

On the other side of the coin, I don’t love the way that, attached to that same art, there is often a deadline and a price tag. I’m not a hustler by nature, my internal rhythm is much slower. So while I love and appreciate the buzz of all the creative energy, sometimes I wish that things could be a little less transactional. And maybe from time to time we could all agree to take a collective breath.

That said, after the last year and a half of pandemic life and performing my poems for cows, I’m looking forward to getting to come back to L.A. very soon— I’ve got some stories to tell.

Pricing:

  • $25.00/poem

Contact Info:

  • Email: goldenblackoutpoems@gmail.com
  • Website: sarahwheelerpoetry.com
  • Instagram: @littlegoldenblackoutpoems
  • Facebook: @littlegoldenblackoutpoesm


Image Credits:

Ivy Event Photos by Jason Do (Instagram @bluefirelens) Erasure poems – @littlegoldenblackoutpoems Blue dress/gold background photos by Isaac Alvarez (Instagram @isaacalvarezraw)

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